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The War Time Memories of Walter Dry
What everyone hoped would not happen had happened!
England was at war with Germany.
I, with my wife, lived in a pleasant house half way between Patterdale and Glenridding, on the road to Helvellyn, with commanding views of Place Fell. Ullswater was only visible in winter when the trees were leafless. The sloping lawn, bordered by a gnarled old larch tree, three magnificent spruce trees, a beautifully shaped yew tree, variegated holly, rhododendron and boxwood made a most delightful setting. In such lovely peaceful surroundings it was difficult to realise that there was a war on.
I remember a particularly fine sunny September evening as I industriously mowed my lawn, thoughts of what the future held passing through my mind, when I was surprised by the appearance of my friend Tom Hadwin in his boss's car. I was even more surprised by his unexpected announcement that he was going to volunteer and would I go with him. A little puzzled, I said "when and why?" "When was now and "why" was because if we volunteered now we would get the best jobs. Not quite knowing what the best jobs were but without giving the matter a second thought, I dashed into the house and, grabbing my jacket, said to my wife "I'm going to volunteer." Before she realised what I had said we were on our way to Ambleside to the Border Regiment's local headquarters.
Tom Hadwin with his boss's car
In those days not many people had cars and to me it was a very pleasant and enjoyable journey as we drove over Kirkstone Pass and down the "Struggle" to Ambleside. Full of enthusiasm and patriotic thought and brimming over with confidence, we approached the drill hall and found it to he a flurry of activity, getting ready for departure to France. Eventually we found someone in authority who was sorry but couldn't help us, but suggested we went to Windermere. Somewhat subdued, we drove another four miles only to find the same feverish excitement, the same indifference to us, only to advise us to go to Kendal. Not quite as enthusiastic, but still determined, we continued our journey. We were prepared and it didn't come as a surprise when we were advised that we go another 22 miles to Lancaster where they were sure we would be attended to. It was just too much, it was too far, we were both disappointed and disillusioned. Who knows just how much the War might have been shortened if only the Army had engaged the two of us then.
By this time the light was beginning; to fade and Tom realised that he hadn't had his headlights modified, allowing only a narrow strip of light focused from the beam. We knew we could get quite a long way home before dark, so with all haste we commenced our journey. All went well until motoring up Kirkstone Pass we encountered a lorry, probably with the same problem as we had. It was only by the skill of the two drivers that we avoided a head-on collision, and fortunately just scraped one another without doing a great deal of damage, but it really was the last straw, after such a frustrating and unsuccessful evening. Tom would have to go and explain to his boss how the car got damaged. Fortunately his boss was, although upset, very understanding.
I worked at Patterdale Hall as the estate carpenter and when my employer heard of my exploit he suggested that I curbed my impatience and waited until I was called up, during which time I could be usefully employed constructing some greenhouses for him. Being in a reserved occupation, I had no idea when or if I would be called up. Wanting to do something, I first joined the A.R.P. then transferred to the Home Guard, which was much more in my line. Although we had ex-officers and ex-Guardsmen to train us and try to knock some sort of military sense into us, we were rather a motley crew and to me, keen and trying to be as efficient as possible, it was like playing at soldiers. It was very difficult in such a pleasant and peaceful environment to fully comprehend the situation. However, when early one morning a German plane jettisoned four bombs in the valley not far from where I lived it completely altered my whole outlook. As I stood later in the day and saw the devastation caused it was brought home most vividly that it wasn't a game at all.
Tom, my friend, not being in a reserved occupation, was soon called up and after a very brief training in England was shipped out to Greece where, much to my sorrow was killed. After all our experience together his loss made me feel that I must do something more than patrolling the village lanes. Twice I wrote to the War Office offering my services. The first reply assured me that as soon as a suitable vacancy occurred I would be sent for. This seemed a bit odd to me. The second reply suggested I went to London to repair bomb damage.
It so happened that our previous doctor, now retired but still living in the village, had been appointed chief medical officer at Carlisle Castle. When I explained to him the difficulty I had in trying to volunteer, he had a bright idea that I should give my job up at the Hall and work for him as a handyman for a short period and therefore no longer being reserved. This I did, and a month later he took me with him and without much ado I was passed A1 and was to report to the R.A.C. training barracks at Warminster. I had been hoping to join the Engineers but on the advice of my doctor I was to explain to the C.O. that I was a fully trained joiner and he felt sure that I would be posted to wherever my experience was most useful.
So finally on a cold wintry January morning I embarked upon the most uncertain period of my life. What lay ahead? Was I to share the same fate as my pal? With these thoughts occupying my mind as I departed from Penrith station at 1.35am, perhaps because it was dark I couldn't see my beloved hills, and valleys. I was quickly leaving them behind, perhaps never to see them again. As daylight broke I realised that the whole countryside was covered with snow but somehow I wasn't in the mood to enjoy the sheer beauty of it. After a long and tiring Journey we eventually arrived at Warminster station a mere 15 hours after leaving Penrith. The train by this time was crowded with young fresh faced lads, new recruits, all facing the same uncertainty as me. Weary and bewildered, we were shepherded on to waiting trucks and driven to the blacked-out barracks, but inside it was light, warm and friendly. We were shown our dormitory, which accommodated 32 of us. After a wash and freshen up in the spotlessly clean washroom, we were given a most appetising hot meal served by immaculately dressed chefs. It was more like a first-class hotel, not at all as I had imagined, with blankets and mattresses already on the bunk beds. It was a rather tired and subdued squad that settled down to sleep.
We soon discovered that sleep wasn't going to be easy. The mattresses were hard and ungiving, the blankets rough and chafing. Sheer fatigue enabled us to get a measure of sleep, only to be rudely awakened by shouts of "Wakey Wakey". My first day in the Army!!
Washing and shaving was the first problem. I had always used a "cut-throat" razor and it was with extreme difficulty and danger that I overcame and avoided the mass of humanity all trying to wash and shave with only a limited number of mirrors available. After an enormous breakfast, our next task was to be kitted out. Expert eyes selected the size of the great coat, two battle dresses, denims, long johns, thick woolly vests, shirts, socks, boots, anklets, web, big pack and small pack, water bottle, kit bag, mess tins, eating utensils, razor. (safety) and shaving brush, cap and cap badge, needles and thread, brushes and polish. The thoughts of having to carry all this amount was rather frightening. We soon learned that all of it, except what we were wearing, had to be systematically laid out on one's bed every morning, a place for everything and everything in its place. Returning to our dormitory, we had to change into our kit and begin. to look like soldiers. We soon discovered that the battle dresses had been treated with a foul smelling gas deterrent that added to the discomfort of the long johns and thick woolly vests, and the disappointment of being issued with a forage cap and not a black beret did little to lift our morale. However we felt a little better when we were told that after our inoculations we would be given 42 hours excused duty. This turned out to be not quite as generous as it sounded, as many suffered quite severely from the effects. I fortunately only had my foul smelling battle dress and my itchy long johns and woolly vest to contend with.
Monday was interview day with the O.C. and confident in my well-rehearsed speech. I answered all his questions, to the best of my ability, then standing smartly to attention I informed him that I was a fully qualified joiner and hoped to be able to continue in that capacity and give the Army the benefit of my experience. He listened with obvious interest and then very quietly assured me that, as soon as the War Office started constructing wooden tanks he would personally see that I was rightly employed, In the meantime, however, he said he would be very grateful if I would oblige him by training as a tank gunner. I had no option but to accept his wishes.
And so began our training. We were divided into groups of 8 with hourly lectures and instruction in gunnery, wireless, driving and maintenance and map reading. Parts of the lectures were interrupted when we had to clear the parade ground of snow. The mid-morning break was very welcome when we could enjoy a mug of tea or coffee from the Naafi. The only difference I noticed between the tea and coffee was the tea was one penny and the coffee one and a half-penny. It was the introduction of physical training that interrupted our morning break, as we were ordered to change into P.T. kit, vests and shorts, at break time. We were then called out from our centrally heated barracks, room and were left cold and miserable waiting for our corporal (who was enjoying his mug of tea) to quick march us to the gymnasium where for an hour we were subjected to the most vigorous exercises one could imagine. I discovered muscles I never knew I had and after about three sessions of this punishing treatment we were all suffering from stiff and aching joints. After each session we were again made to stand out in the cold and although sweating profusely with our strenuous exercises we very soon were shivering and it was no wonder that nearly all of us developed bad colds. One poor laddie was so stiff and sore he felt he couldn't stand any more, so he decided to go sick, which meant seeing the Medical Officer quite early in the morning. We were all very interested to hear the outcome. When we did, and heard that he had been given an extra three sessions in the gym we unanimously decided to suffer in silence. Marching and arm drill were much more in my line as I had had a good grounding in the Home Guard.
It took a few days to get into the routine, to be able to fold our blankets properly, to lay our kit out as per demonstration, to make sure our bed space was clear of dust and fluff, to make sure the floor was highly polished. We were then told to polish our brasses and blanco our webbing. I don't think I ever saw such a mess in the ablutions as the numbers of lads all trying to blanco all their pieces of webbing and more important, to find somewhere to put them to dry and then when dry to start and polish the numerous pieces of brass, buttons, buckles, badges. There were many frustrated and homesick troopers, as. we were called, during that first week. What with hard beds, smelly battle dresses, rough blankets, tickly underclothes, stiff and aching joints, bullying corporals, I was beginning to wonder why I had volunteered and this was; only the beginning, but there was no going home and the only thing to do was to grin and bear it. I think the one saving grace was the excellent meals, plentiful and very tasty, although one minor crisis springs to mind. Each dining table seating about eighteen had a corporal in charge, his duty to keep order or receive any complaints, although as I said there was always a plentiful supply excepting butter, which was rationed to one portion per person. This particular tea time I surreptitiously acquired two portions, only to be most alarmed when I heard a roar from the corporal, asking who had swiped his ration of butter. Furtively slipping the offending portion under the rim of my plate, I tried to appear as calm as possible as he carefully examined everyone's plate. Fortunately he didn't spot it under my plate. Ironically, by the time the furore had died down and the corporal riot getting his share, the little piece under my plate had melted.
As the days slowly dragged on we gradually became more capable. Brasses began to gleam, blancoing wasn't such a problem, not quite so afraid of the N.C.O.s although they still seemed a race apart. Friendships had begun to form and life began to take on a rather more acceptable aspect.
I think I enjoyed the drilling, marching and arms drill most. I had, as already said, a fairly sound training in the Home Guard and I was, much to my ego, commended on my smartness and ability. After the third week we were allowed a pass into town, providing we looked like and carried ourselves like soldiers. It was a new experience to walk through the streets of Warminster to show off a little, appear blasé and self-assured, but I am sure the inhabitants knew us for what we were, new recruits. After six weeks, which seemed like a lifetime, I got my first leave and it was with much pride that. I strolled through the village with head held high. The only fly in the ointment was that the head wore a forage cap and not the symbolic black beret. But all too quickly the leave was over and once again I endured the long weary journey to Warminster.
We were no longer classed as new recruits and it was now our turn to greet the new weekly intake with the same welcome we had received, namely "You lucky people". We now entered a period of urgent and intense training, priority in my case with weaponry, small arms, small cannon etc., wireless. I found the procedure for sending and receiving messages rather bewildering. I enjoyed map reading most of all as my exams showed when I received over 90% pass. Star pupils in any subject had a good chance of becoming future Instructors, and I had a faint hope that I might qualify. Actually, if I had been able to play a cornet or a saxophone I would have stood a better chance, as one individual not very clever at map reading but a good instrumentalist was selected. The squadron band was short of players!!
Guard duty now became part of our training. I don't think I ever heard anyone say they liked doing it.
Guard mounting was rather an impressive sight when the sections from the entire barracks assembled in the parade ground with gleaming brasses and blancoed webbing, Standing smartly to attention to be inspected by the O.C. one hoped that brasses and webbing were up to standard and whether one needed a haircut. Any of these things lacking in any way meant one was subjected to any punishment they could think of and there were so many ways they could make one's life unpleasant. After inspection, each group was marched off to its allotted guard room, divided into pairs and allocated our hours, of duty. Until such time we could rest in the guard room. To make sure the guards did their duty, they were given a key which fitted numbered time clocks strategically situated around the barracks. With the key one was given a time card, stating the time and number of the clock, which had to be stamped. As each time card was checked at the end of each tour of duty it ensured the guards were awake and alert. Once again, the penalties for missing out on any clock wasn't considered worthwhile.
Training as a gunner. I was occasionally detailed to "guard the barracks" during the daytime. Armed with a Bren machine gun I had to occupy a foxhole on the perimeter of the camp. With snow covering the ground it was a cold, lonely, miserable duty, relieved only by the cooks delivering an occasional meal and hot drink.
Marching and drilling were still very enjoyable to me. At times a little confusing as numerous squads all drilling at the same time and the loud yelling of the drill instructors, it was sometimes difficult to select one's own instructor's orders. By this time we were very smart and efficient, obeying orders snappily and briskly. One morning we decided to have a little game against our instructor. On the command "to the front salute" the squad halts, salutes, about turns, salutes again, then quick marches back to the instructor, We pretended we hadn't heard the order and continued marching until we reached the farthest end of the parade ground, continuing to mark time until the inwardly furious but outwardly calm corporal reached us. We apologised profusely, saying we were sorry but never heard any order. To our surprise he only smiled and said "Not, to worry but he would make sure we heard him in future". He was true to his word, for the next half hour he was never more than twenty yards from us. It was just a case of quick march, left right, left right, about turn and repeated over and over again. It was the one and only time we tried to get the better of him.
With only 20% of the personnel allowed a pass at weekend it was virtually impossible to get one, even by queuing up. Missing mid-day meal wasn't always successful. I had the privilege and opportunity to join a local Warminster church choir. Although not knowing it at the time, it entitled me to an Education Pass which I kept in my possession, and it allowed me out of camp from mid-day Saturday until midnight Sunday. I also discovered it provided many outings of interest such as Salisbury Cathedral, Longleat House and various other historical and places of beauty.
It was now time for us to begin our driving lessons. Very few of us, including myself, were able to drive, so even the first object of getting the vehicles out of the garages, especially with so many attempting at one time. Some vehicles were just shuddering, others leaping forward in little bounds, others accelerating far too quickly. It was pandemonium. However with patience and luck eventually the parade ground became a mass of vehicles twisting and turning. Some couldn't start, some couldn't stop and others hopped about like kangaroos. One could have been forgiven for thinking one was back at Blackpool enjoying the thrill of bumper cars. However, as time went by and with perseverance most of us began to get the hang of it and eventually, to our excitement but the dismay of the local residents, we were allowed outside the camp and let loose on the highways and byways of the surrounding countryside. As our experience and driving skills increased we were then introduced to Bren gun carriers. With a crew of five and an instructor we had to adapt our skills to the undulating terrain of Salisbury Plain, where courses of varying degrees of difficulty were laid out. We thought it great fun as we were jostled and shaken as driver after driver attempted to negotiate the hills and hollows. When my turn came I was, as they say, quietly confident and appeared to be doing quite well. Speeding quite quickly down a decline, the instructor suddenly realized I was on a ‘severe’ course, but despite all his frantic instructions I continued merrily along until I myself realized we were approaching a very steep drop. Despite all my efforts, I was unable to change into a lower gear. Somehow I felt remarkably cool and as we were gaining speed and the steep drop coming menacingly nearer, I suddenly remembered that there was an emergency handbrake. More by luck than management I eventually located it and without a moment's hesitation I grasped it very firmly and pulled it back with all my strength. The carrier immediately reared up on its nose and for one agonising second was poised and could have turned completely over, but fortunately it slowly dropped back on to it’s tracks. Turning to face the instructor and crew with a sickly smile, to be confronted by five deathly white faces, I also turned a little pale when I suddenly realized that only a few yards ahead was an almost sheer drop, the consequences of which I think were all too obvious to us. I wasn't the least surprised when the instructor decided to drive the carrier back to base himself.
By now the intensive training was beginning to show. We were all very much smarter, very much fitter. Physical training had toned up our muscles. I think one of the best morale boosters was when we received our Black Berets. Guard duty appeared less arduous and one always got a kick after awakening an unsuspecting pal about 3 a.m. and asking him if he would like to buy a battleship!!
It was becoming increasingly obvious that our stay in England was getting near to its end. Speculation as to where we may be sent was always in our minds. One or two lads from our particular squad were made acting unpaid lance-corporals, and it amused me intensely when, although I was very friendly with them, they felt we shouldn't appear in public with them, as it might have some sort of effect on their superiority. One didn't fraternise with N.C.O.s!!
It was with great excitement we went home again on leave, but it was also tinged with sadness, knowing that some considerable time would elapse before I would be able to, if ever come home again.
Returning to Warminster to find we had been moved into a tented camp, with about fifteen of us sharing a bell tent, heads to the outer edge of the tent, feet to the centre like spokes of a wheel. It was a pleasant change, the weather was warmer and being away from the huge stuffy barracks was much more comfortable.
We all knew we were awaiting shipment. Lectures were few. We had rather more freedom and a bit of route marching. A mini-marathon was arranged with over seventy starters. I realized that the other 69 were all in their late teens and I was 31 and christened Grandpa, so with grit and determination I plodded round the course and to my surprise I was second, beaten, aptly, by a lad called Swift.
After nearly five months' training I had assembled and dismantled machine guns and two-pounder cannons. I hadn't been in close contact with a "tank". That was soon to be put right. We were transported to somewhere in West Wales and allowed to fire the two-pounder gun. During our training we had sat in a mock-up tank turret and fired a "gun" which threw a little red light at small moving targets on landscaped back cloth, but this was to be the real thing. After accustoming myself to the interior and getting the feel of things, the two-pounder was loaded with a live shell and given a target and instruction to observe the shot. After traversing, elevating and depressing the gun I finally got the approved target in the cross-wires and pressing the firing button, I was rewarded with a deafening explosion, a blinding flash, a breech block recoiled with a sickening thud, belching acrid smoke and a gleaming shell case to be thrown out of the hatch. I certainly hadn't observed the shot. After the initial frightening experience, and after a few more rounds, I was able to see just how near I had been to the target.
When we were issued with tropical kit we knew we were about to depart from England. After being taught about Egyptian currency, it was a pretty fair guess as to where we were going. Almost six months to the day from leaving Patterdale we were entrained and sped north to Glasgow. It was with very mixed feelings when we passed through Penrith station. We found ourselves very soon aboard the huge three-funnelled "Empress of Japan". After Japan entered the War it became "Empress of Britain". I believe that with officers and men, A.T.S nurses and crew we were well over five thousand. I was, given a berth on G deck, somewhere in the bowels of the ship. We were supplied with hammocks which were hitched to the ceiling in a space-saving way, so that one's head was abreast someone else's midriff and woe betide the one in the middle if he was late to bed. We also had full use of half of the promenade deck. After a few days getting sorted out and into some sort of ship-shape order we were ready to start the big adventure. Just before we sailed I had the awe-inspiring sight of the Queen Mary arriving from America with a full consignment of G.I.s. I thought our ship was big but it was completely dwarfed by the Queen Mary.
Being trained as a gunner, I was detailed to occupy a look-out post situated high above the boat deck and commanding an excellent view. This was to be my station for the entire voyage. With a pal, we did eight hour shifts - or should it be "watches"?
Finally we were at sea and sailing north, watching the British Isles slowly disappearing in the distance. About midnight we commenced our first watch. Although it was July it was cold and unpleasant. A freshening wind began to roughen the sea. Sitting in our look-out with only the stars showing any light, it was a weird and eerie feeling. The rising and falling slowly up and down of the ship as it ploughed through the ever increasing waves, the wind blew stronger and stronger. When daylight broke a never-to-be-forgotten sight revealed itself. The unbelievable size of the convoy, ships in every direction, appearing and disappearing in the deep troughs between the waves, with big ships and little ships, battleships and cruisers, merchant ships and liners, with destroyers busily fussing around.
Going to the dining room for breakfast, it was there that the full movement of the ship was most apparent. The huge dining room which accommodated the entire company in three sittings, was like an optical illusion, with the farthest end appearing to rise, whilst one was slowly going down at the other end. I knew if I stayed there and had any breakfast I would be seasick, so abandoning the idea I returned to the look-out post, staying there until my next "watch" came round. With the cold fresh wind, I managed to keep my head clear and finding a sheltered corner on the deck, managed to get a little sleep.
As we continued to sail north, the wind gradually lessened, the sea became calmer and friendlier until it was a gentle undulating swell, almost pure white, looking for all the world like a huge expanse of untouched snow. We ploughed along, steadily, relentlessly, inexorably, changing directions every few minutes. The reason I believe was that if there were any U-boats in the vicinity it took so many minutes to get an accurate "fix" on us.
The days passed by slowly, days fortunately without any enemy interference. It was still very cold and it came as quite a shock when we were instructed to parade the following morning in tropical kit, and it was a chilly and grumbling company that stood to be inspected. My shorts were anything but fashionable, wide legged and reaching below my shins, where they were then doubled back and clipped thigh-high with press studs. It wasn't until some considerable time later that I discovered the reason for the turn-ups. The only useful purpose I could find was they made quite convenient pockets. What an incongruous sight we looked, with long shorts, pith helmets and bare knees. Before the day was out we were glad of our tropical kit. Even so, many suffered from sore burned knees. It was so very much pleasanter though to be warm and yet kept cool by a lovely fresh wind. Once again, I realized how fortunate I was when I could spend so much time on the boat deck. The sheer beauty of night time, stars overhead reflected in the water, phosphorescent fish illuminating the sea as they seemed to dance and glisten. During the days, schools of dolphins and porpoises accompanied us along, shoals of flying fish skimmed over the waves. The sheer vastness of the sea fascinated me. Unbelievable that we had been out of sight of land for so long. So it was with keen anticipation when we were told we were approaching Freetown but were disappointed when told we were not to be allowed ashore. Although it was their wet season, the sight of land, of trees and fields gave me such pleasure. We were an object of great excitement by the natives as they surrounded our ship and were only too eager to dive in the water for any coins we would throw them. After a brief stay, in which we replenished and refuelled our ship, we were once again wending our way on the high sea.
Apart from the overcrowding, it could almost have been called a pleasure cruise. In fact, it was for me, being able to spend most of my time on the secluded boat deck. Once again, the same routine, boat drill, lectures, guard duties, all the time relentlessly continuing our voyage. The weather was warm and sunny, almost ideal conditions but always at the back of one's mind was the reason for, the purpose of, our journey.
Our next port of call was Cape Town. This time our joy knew no bounds as we were to be allowed ashore. How many ships there were waiting to unload their cargoes of humanity I don't know. What I do know is that as we left the ship and walked towards the town it seemed as if the entire population awaited us. One by one we were ushered into their cars and taken to their homes, where we were fed and feted, given accommodation and taken sightseeing. The welcome was almost overwhelming. We had four days of such pleasure, such friendliness, days which passed far too quickly, a never-to-be-forgotten experience, and to climb Table Mountain and look down on the town and think of all the marvellous, the wonderful people with affection and gratitude.
All too soon we were speeding up the east coast of Africa, our morale boosted by such spontaneous and sincere friendliness. Gradually we approached our destination. We anchored briefly off shore from Aden. A more desolate, and inhospitable place is difficult to imagine - nothing but a sea of sand. Perhaps it was a foretaste of what to expect. Then, as the mind flooded with memories of Sunday School, we passed through the Red Sea and I thought of the parting of the waves that allowed the Israelites to escape. Soon our long and to me enjoyable voyage was over. As we disembarked at Port Taufiq, the first thought that crossed my mind was "We are now in the same country as the enemy". We were transported to huge white-washed barracks just outside Cairo, sparsely furnished with old iron beds, the gaunt dormitories speckled with dashes of crimson. Having collected our kit and selected a bed, sleep seemed to be the thing that mattered most, so wearily and with a sigh of relief, settled down on the bed, to be awakened by a swarm of bugs biting necks, faces, arms, legs, in fact almost everywhere. As soon as a light was switched on they disappeared like magic appearing again as soon as the light was out. After the first painful sleepless night we were advised to dispense with the beds and sleep on the floor, pouring paraffin around the beds-space, but with so many bites one needed medical attention and for weeks afterwards I still had scars to remind me. The heat, different food and water, affected nearly everyone with a gippy tummy and diarrhoea. So a sickly and unhappy few days, elapsed before one felt able to experience one's new country.
It was an education to discover and explore whenever we got chance. The tall eucalyptus trees, the wonderfully fertile Delta, the sweet water canal, to watch the ancient methods of irrigating their prepared plots of land by using oxen tethered to a central post and trudging around in a never-ending circle, and with a prehistoric gadget pumped water into the plots. The most amazing and the most unbelievable was the visit to the Sphinx and Pyramids, another never-to-be-forgotten experience.
However, it was soon made obvious to us that we hadn't come to Egypt for sight-seeing and I with several others was attached to the 41st. R.T.R. (We only just joined them a few days before El Alamein), also a newly arrived unit from England. Being fully up to strength, I was labelled L.O.B. - left out of battle - but joined the echelon as a second driver. Although not in action as the attack at El Alamein began, I was close enough to experience the massive fire power as thousands of guns deafened the night as salvo after salvo was thrown at the enemy. Next morning, due to heavy casualties, about 20 of us were despatched to reinforce the 3rd Hussars. Despite all his efforts our driver was unable to locate them. Lost and bewildered we decided to do the obvious thing and "brew up". We had already learned that to fill an empty half of a "flimsy" petrol can with sand then to pour petrol into it made a long-lasting fire. So after refreshing ourselves it was decided to try and get back to our original regiment. Clambouring aboard the three-tonner, we noticed there was still some petrol left in the bottom half of the flimsy can, so It was also put aboard. Just before we started back, one trooper lighting his cigarette casually flicked the match away, only for it to fall into the can of petrol, which harmlessly caught fire. Harmless it was until someone panicked and decided to get out, only to knock over the can, in the process of which immediately sent a sheet of flame enveloping the whole rear of the truck. I still don't know how we all managed to scramble out unharmed, because very very quickly the whole truck caught fire and was a write-off. I can't remember how we managed to get back to our headquarters, but somehow we did and had some very difficult explaining to do. As well as losing a three-ton truck we had lost all our possessions and literally I only had the clothes I stood up in.
The attack going well, the powers-that-be pulled the 41st out of the line and equipped them with Scorpion tanks specially designed to destroy the minefields. As they only required a tank commander and a driver, the remainder of the crew returned to base. Whereupon, after a few days, a number of us were posted to the 44th R.T.C. which, having been in action in the desert for some considerable time, were resting in Rafa (now - the Gaza Strip). I was in for another exciting experience, being driven across the Sinai Desert, a wild expanse of nothing but sand.
The camp at Rafa was no better. We were billeted in large tents, erected in true military precision, perfectly straight lines, not a guy rope out of place. Our training recommenced straight away. The 44th had a few Grant tanks for us to train on and needed a six-man crew. I had a turret all to myself, situated on the side of the tank with 75mm cannon. We had many short excursions into the desert where I fired the gun at imaginary targets. We were also taught the art of conserving water. We were limited to two gallons per day for all our needs. Despite all my efforts of straining through sand and sieves, I still felt that the water I recovered after washing my socks wasn't very clean or hygienic and not at all appetising.
When the authorities discovered I was a joiner, I was despatched to the cookhouse to repair forms and tables, not the easiest of tasks with a very limited tool kit. A hammer, a screwdriver and a hacksaw. But despite the handicap it proved to be a very good job. Rumour had it that leave to Jerusalem was on the cards. The only flaw in this exciting event was the shortage of cash. Wages were not very high and after sending my wife's allowance home there was only enough left to pay for the mid-morning breaks etc. That is why the job at the cookhouse was important. I didn't have to spend my money on food. I was allowed it from the cooks' kitchen. I made the most of it, making sure that either a table or a form needed some sort of repair every day, even if it sometimes meant a little unobserved help from me.
Sometimes when out on forays, we had of course no sanitary arrangements. The practice was to walk as far away as possible so as to be barely recognisable, and armed with a spade, dig a suitable little hole and like cats do, fill it in again. Around the camp there were several empty bomb cases about 6 ft long and 2 ft square and some bright spark had the brilliant idea that if one took the lid oft, turned it over and then cut three egg or pear-shaped holes in the bottom they could be taken on the forays and placed over a deep previously cut trench. Of course, it became my job to cut the desired shaped holes. Having only a hacksaw blade to do the job the result being a rough jagged semblance of a circle, I can assure you that when in use no one stayed a second longer than necessary.
I had no idea that the winter would be so unpleasant. Back into our battle dresses to weather the cold. It often rained. It actually hailed one day, but I think the worst thing was the dust storms when sand was blown into every crack and crevice. To be caught out in one was very frightening as eyes, ears and mouth were filled with the tiny granules. On the whole life was very pleasant. Letters, from home came quite frequently. An open-air cinema provided lots of entertainment. I joined a male voice choir, which sang two or three times a week. I was also saving madly for my "granted" leave. When it came, again it was a most memorably unforgettable experience. All my Sunday School teachings came flooding back and I was able to visit the Garden of Gethsemane, Church of All Nations, Mount of Olives, Good Samaritan Inn, Mount of Temptation, Elisha's Well, to Bethlehem, Rachel's Tomb, the Catacombs, the birthplace of Jesus. I listened to the Bells of Bethlehem, entered the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Mount Calvary, the Judgement Hall, saw the Rock Split by Lightning, drove down to the Dead Sea where I proved to myself that I couldn't sink. I walked round the City Walls, stood at the foot of the Wailing Wall, was fascinated watching craftsmen at work, fashioning most intricate designs in mother-of- pearl, working in little dark places by the sides of the narrow streets. I bought lovely sweet Jaffa oranges weighed in ancient scales with pebbles for weights. Outside the city walls the shepherds, with small flocks of sheep and goats, walked in front of the flocks, the leading sheep with little tinkling bells around their necks. It was all so very wonderful, but a week passes very quickly and in no time I was back to base.
Instead of P.T. we organised football matches between squadrons, playing three or four times a week. During one game on a Sunday afternoon, I got a kick on my leg which I had broken many years ago. It swelled up very alarmingly till I had a lump the size of an egg. Helped to the Medical Ward where only an orderly was in charge. He thought it might be "broken" but casually suggested that I go and put it under hot and cold water alternately. A good idea except that I only had a meagre supply of water and that was cold. However, the swelling subsided during the night and I reported sick next morning, whereupon our M.O. wanted to know more of the history of the previous break, and I was despatched to a hospital just outside Gaza, where I spent four very enjoyable days, sleeping on a lovely soft bed, attended to hand and foot (or leg) with English nurses. Life was very pleasant. The X-ray on my leg showed nothing serious, so rather disappointedly, I was despatched back to base. Our training continued with sojourns into the desert, gunnery practice, driving, wireless operating. Each and every day one worked from daylight till dark. Guard duties, soccer matches, there was no time to he bored.
The news from North Africa was very encouraging. We all knew that before long our quiet, refuge in Rafa wouldn't be for so very much longer.
Despite the uncertainty, life was quite enjoyable. A good supply of mail, the outdoor cinema, the Brigade choir. Even our schemes in the desert were very interesting. During quieter moments one was fascinated by the amount of wild life, lots of green scorpions, large spiders, centipedes and of course the desert scavenger - the sacred scarab beetle. How industriously they worked, collecting little balls of camel dung and skilfully rolling them towards a prepared cavity in the sand. What was most amazing was they couldn't see where they were going, as they pushed the dung with their rear end. It wasn't until someone poured some boiling water over a small ball of dung which burst open and revealed four baby scarabs, very much alive and kicking.
The weather continued to remain very cold, right into the end of February. However as March came in, so did the weather improve. Speculation was again the talking point as we were transported once again across the Sinai Desert. After a very dismal, boring journey what a relief it was to reach Ismailia. How green and fresh it looked with the swaying palm trees, the tall Eucalyptus trees and the luscious cultivated farm land. We continued our journey to Kabret on the Suez Canal, where our object was to practise the landing of tanks on one of the islands in the Bitter Lakes. With six tanks aboard a tank landing craft we sailed towards the island and, selecting a suitable site, beached the tank. For the remainder of the day we were free to swim in the lovely warm water or collect beautifully coloured shells or simply sunbathe. Returning to base one evening, we had a rather frightening experience. A huge oil tanker on its way to Britain caught us in its draft and we were pulled helplessly into its path. Fortunately we hit amidships, suffering a certain amount of damage and being carried along some considerable distance before we managed to extricate ourselves.
For a few weekends we stayed in many different camps around Suez, Alexandria and Cairo. Swimming was a very popular pastime. We played cricket. First time I had played on sand pitches. We went on many schemes. Time didn't matter. To be aroused at 3.30am wasn't at all unusual. To have to pack up and leave at 9pm was quite ordinary.
All the time at the back of one's mind we knew that soon all this playing at soldiers would end. Where we were likely to go was anyone's guess. Even more confusing when we were put aboard a huge liner of the Oronsay class, and sailed south through the Suez Canal. Another of my wishes granted. We must be going to India, we thought, but when we once again sailed through the Suez, this time north, it was even more puzzling.
Having by now abandoned the Grant tanks we were given Shermans, which being a five man crew, I was once again a spare man and became a second driver on a truck. The tanks however were not on the same ship as we were, being aboard another ship with a driver and tank commander responsible. Eventually all was revealed to us. We were to invade Sicily. We were then given an enormous amount of data: what the terrain was like, we were shown innumerable photos of where we were to land. As the D-Day approached I remember looking around at my friends and wondering just how many of us would be alive in a few days' time. The day arrived, we were unloaded into smaller landing craft. It was a lovely sunny morning and strangely enough so very peaceful. We were a mixed bag on my particular landing craft, infantry, engineers, gunners, the lot. Getting fairly near the shore, an infantry captain said to his troops "Follow me". The landing craft had a telescopic gangway which it pushed forward quite a number of yards. The captain with his kit packed high on his shoulders, his rifle held aloft, walked determinedly along the gangway, his contingent closely behind. When he stepped off the end he fell into about 7 ft of water and disappeared. He somehow struggled to the shore, but the rest of his troops, like us, waited until we managed to get a little nearer shore and waded ashore with the water only to our knees. We quickly made our way to our assembly point, but not before I saw the countless numbers of ships and the intense activity going on all around. It was an unbelievable experience. What was more amazing was it was all happening without the slightest interference from the enemy.
The unimaginable joy of walking on springy turf, to be surrounded by olive trees, by lemon and orange groves. It was all so idyllic and peaceful. However, the peace was to be rudely shattered when the enemy discovered our presence and we had to endure a noisy and frightening bombardment by their planes, crouching in our quickly dug slit trenches. With some of the tank crews going sick on the voyage I was at last a member of a tank crew once again. It was ironic. The ship that carried my squadron ("C") tanks had only unloaded a few tanks when it was sunk by enemy bombs and my troop was the unfortunate one (or fortunate(?) in losing our tanks. However only a few days elapsed before we were once more fully equipped. The two troops in our squadron that had tanks were very quickly in action. One troop in particular, as they surprised an Italian General with all his staff breakfasting, and was a feather in their cap as they took them all prisoner.
My first taste of action was about to begin, at about 3 a.m. we trundled out of our leaguer and took up our position. I was both excited and apprehensive as our tank commander gave me targets to aim at and fire at, but although we moved forward very slowly I never once saw anything of the enemy. The noise in the tank is so loud that one never heard anything happening outside it. It was a long weary hot day. Although I had fired many rounds of 75mm shells and lots of rounds from the Browning-machine gun, I had no idea whatever what the results were. As darkness drew in we hid ourselves amongst the trees, then had the task of cleaning guns, stocking up with more shells, filling up with petrol, then had to make our own meals, disturbed somewhat by the whining of snipers' bullets and being attacked by mosquitoes. It was then I realized the purpose of the turned up shorts. To protect ourselves from the mosquitoes. the shorts had to be converted into longs, tucked in our hose tops, our shirt sleeves rolled down and the remainder of any visible flesh covered with an evil smelling grease. One other precaution was the issue of "nepacremes" in place of quinine.
We were self-sufficient, carrying a primus stove, one's own rations and one's own bed roll. Even after being on duty for nearly 20 hours we still had to do a spell of guard duty. This was the pattern for the first week, with reveille at first light and action till last light, it was very hard going, feeling very weary and hardly able to keep one's eyes open. During the few intervals that we were able to see the outside of the tank in daylight, we amused ourselves by counting the number of notches made by enemy machine guns. This gave us more confidence in the protection the tank provided and was a real morale booster.
We adopted different tactics. One night I fired the Bren gun into the darkness for nearly two hours at an invisible target. Another day we sat astride Primasole Bridge being peppered with rifle and machinegun bullets sitting quite happily until a mournful shout from our driver informed us we were on fire. It was only after repeated warnings from the driver that our tank commander, himself only a corporal, obtained permission to retire. Finding a place of concealment, we got out to assess the damage, to find that a canvas flap around the gun had been set on fire by incendiary bullets and caused no danger whatever.
One particular morning, we were deployed on the fringe of fairly open plain. A wooded area barely visible in the distance possibly concealed enemy tanks. Everything seemed so peaceful and quiet, a beautiful sunny day, but difficult to enjoy as we were cramped up inside the tank which, as the sun got stronger, so the heat in the tank rose till it was like being in an oven. For many hours we just sat there, scanning the horizon, just waiting for something to happen. Despite a warning that we could expect an attack at any time, nothing seemed to relieve the tension that was affecting all of us. Without warning a tank about 50 yards from us went up in smoke and flames, the crew managing to bail out. The extent of any injuries we didn't know. We beat a hasty retreat, ending up, in a deep depression with disastrous results. Nearly all the ammunition including huge 75mm shells, Browning ammunition, smoke shells and hand grenades fell out of the racks. It was a tricky and difficult task to replace them. After some considerable time, we were ordered, to re-occupy our position, possibly because there had been no further enemy action. It was with apprehension coupled with the fact that no enemy was visible made the uncertainty and helplessness of our position very nerve-racking. Trying desperately to steady my nerves, I sucked on my empty pipe like a baby with its dummy. So tensed up was I, not helped by the complete silence around, that when the tank commander sneezed violently I bit the end clean off my pipe.
We waited anxiously for last light, hoping that we would be able to retire before becoming the next victim. Our hopes were not fulfilled. Suddenly with a deafening crash the turret filled with flying bits of metal. It was with a supreme effort that I managed to catapult myself out of the turret. Before my feet touched the ground I was making headlong haste into some nearby cover with bullets whistling all around. It wasn't until I was partly concealed that I realized I had just run through a thick cactus hedge. Looking around I was aware that there was only four of us. Unfortunately our co-driver had received the full impact of the armour-piercing shell that had destroyed our tank. Our driver was also badly wounded but the three of us from the turret suffered a mass of cuts and bruises, bare arms and bare legs, face and necks peppered with tiny bits of metal, the blood undoubtedly making us look a lot worse. Also, it was quite a painful job extricating the horribly prickly thorns of the cactus. When I ventured to stand upright I found my right leg was very painful, possibly caused by jumping from the top of the tank, which was by now blazing furiously and ammunition exploding all over the place. From somewhere our O.C. arrived and realizing we could all walk, told me to climb on to the back of his tank and we would pull out. Quite unthinkingly I said "I'm not getting on another tank as long as I live". "Please yourself" he answered, "but if you don't, your living could end very quickly". I needed no second bidding and I was quickly driven away and dumped in a forward field dressing station in some sort of cavern, where my injuries hardly warranted a second look, so I was despatched to a nearby school where amongst many more soldiers suffering from a variety of wounds I was laid on a stretcher on a classroom floor, every possible space being covered with bodies on stretchers like me, just sufficient space between each stretcher to allow the orderlies to work. Being only slightly wounded, the only attention I got was an occasional drink. For about 24 hours I lay there. With the blood dried from the numerous cuts, with the heat, the smell, the moans and groans. I decided to go to the washroom. However, as soon as I stood up I immediately fainted and was told afterwards it was delayed shock. Fortunately the next day I was taken back to my unit, which was high up on a most idyllic place set amongst orange and lemon groves with a crystal clear stream meandering between the trees. Thoughts of home were very much in my mind. What a truly delightful place to convalesce. My cuts healed very quickly, although I still needed a stick to help, my progress. But however ideal places are there are always some snags. As soon as the sun went down the mosquitoes descended in hordes. The heat was even more oppressive. Ants of every size and description covered the ground. With sleeves rolled down, trousers turned down, thickly greased up, the only refuge was inside our mosquito nets.
Very soon the conquest of Sicily was completed. The tank crews came to join us and to enjoy a very well-earned rest. We moved camp nearer the Adriatic coast, which afforded us the immense pleasure of swimming in the lovely warm water.
The army often had ideas which were difficult to fathom. For instance, we were told that shortly we were to be inspected by our own Brigadier, which meant the thorough cleaning of all the tanks, using gallons of diesel, all squadron signs to be painted on, everything to be shining and in apple pie order. In the meantime, our Technical Storeman went down with malaria and I was offered the job in his absence. I also had recovered a hundred per cent, my leg as good as. new. So good in fact that when the opportunity came to climb Mount Etna I jumped at it with alacrity. We set off in a large Italian coach and drove up the winding road for about 6,000 feet where we bedded down in an observatory of some sort, being wakened at about 3 a.m. to commence the actual climb, With a guide and about 30 of us, it was rather monotonous at first, no greenery of any sort, only loose crumbly lava. So a pal and I decided to desert the guide and make a much more direct approach. It was with much puffing and blowing, the rarefied air making breathing difficult, we reached the summit, only to realize that there are two peaks to Etna and we had climbed the wrong one. It meant dashing down for about 2000 feet and eventually catching up with the tail end of the group. I found the last 1000 feet most arduous, having to pause to regain one's breath about every 20 yards. The effort however was certainly worth it. To stand on the rim and to look down into the huge crater, to try and realize the immense force rumbling below the surface, as powerful jets of steam were forced through fissures in the side of the crater, one felt that at any moment the whole crater would suddenly release its fury and envelope the lot of us. I had seen it, I had been very impressed, but it was with a feeling of relief when I started the return journey.
The day before the Brigadier's inspection I spent all day making sure all tanks had their proper code signs and insignia painted on, checking each tank as it trundled out to the parade ground. By the time the last tank had gone it was almost dark. All the personnel were bedded down around the tank, leaving my own kit and mosquito net isolated and alone, so I decided to delay my movement until next morning. I was very quickly asleep, to be rudely awakened about 2am and ordered to pack my kit, and join the others, arriving there to find everyone awake and being briefed by our O.C. Still being half asleep, it took quite some time before it dawned on me that we were being called to action. As our O.C. put it, C Squadron had been specially selected to, with the help of the Commandoes, invade southern Italy, and we should all be very proud and regard it as an honour. Our instructions were very simple. We had to support the Commandos, driving north until we met opposition. "Sounded very simple". What really hurt me was when all my careful and painstaking painting was erased and obliterated in very much quicker time than I had spent painting. When I tentatively suggested that I was now a Tech Storeman and not a gunner, I was of course very much encouraged by the 0.C.’s reply. "Sure" he said "You will be our storeman when - and if - you come back." It was a somewhat chastened "storeman to be" as our tanks trundled towards the port of Catania. Intelligence reports had never meant much to me but I changed my mind when they reported that the fleeing enemy had moved so very quickly north that our "honoured" operation was called off. The remainder of our stay in Sicily was very pleasant. The grapes in the vineyards were ripe. There was an unending choice of exotic fruit, plenty of swimming. The villagers were slowly returning to their villages. They were very friendly and many a bottle of vino we sampled with them. It was interesting to watch the farmers, as their most important job was the irrigation of their crops. Little stone built channels dotted the hillsides with strategically placed offshoots at regular intervals, a stream high up on the hillside being diverted into the main channel, and farmers at each offshoot with neatly fitting sluices directed the water until every square yard of their plots was sufficiently watered. At harvest time the grapes were usually pressed by bare feet, but I was privileged to see a "modern" press, a huge circular solid base of oak with a similar pattern above attached to a massive oak baulk roughly 'fashioned from the tree itself, and so cunningly balanced like a see-saw, that it was childs' play to manipulate it.
Our days of peace and leisure were soon to be over. It was no surprise when we found ourselves once more aboard ship, which sailed us to Taranto, staying for a few days before we again went aboard and sailed up the coast as far as Bari. By this time I had made sure I was a Tech Storeman, being equipped with a three-ton Bedford and driver and an immense stock of every conceivable spare that tanks or trucks needed. The only help I had in knowing what anyone wanted was with a massive catalogue. Anything ordered that I wasn't sure of I would take the invoice to H.Q. and get it from them, so by trial and error and help from the fitters I quickly began to familiarise myself with my stock.
It wasn't long before the tanks were in action again and it was then that I began to realize that, although we frequently got bombed and shelled, I was no longer going looking for trouble. Any of our tanks that were knocked out but "recoverable", before they were towed to the workshops, I had to collect various items of equipment which the Squadron put aboard, such as binoculars, compasses and the like. One rather special perk was to be found in a suitable compartment under the floor of the tank. It was the emergency 5-man 3-day pack of provisions. We didn't feel guilty as we knew that someone somewhere, if we didn't, would make sure that the tank arrived provision-less at the workshop. Also any repaired tank sent out from there always was fully provisioned.
My main recollections of Italy are of wind and rain, bogged down in mud. An abundance of apples helped the morale a little. When I thought of the poor infantry I realized how lucky we were, to be able to carry most of our belongings, to be able to sleep under cover each night, Usually the cooks' truck was with us so cooking meals was their job. We lived mainly off the "compo" rations. Quite good, although tea, sugar and dried milk were mixed together in one tin. To make decent brew was almost, impossible as the dried milk boiled before the water and one was left with a messy mug of floating tea leaves. One night in particular the brew was even worse. One HAD to complain, only to be told that one of the lads had received a parcel and that the tea we were drinking, was in fact coffee. I still said it was horrible tea, but excellent coffee.
I think the most miserable time was around Christmas 1943. We were in the Pescara area. There was about 12 inches of snow everywhere. Most nights we suffered a little shelling. Daytime the area was subjected to frequent bombing. Christmas was a little more jolly. The cooks had spirited a pig from somewhere. Bottles of beer arrived and on Christmas Day the officers traditionally served the dinner. With pork and all its frills, two bottles of beer followed by the most potent punch I'd ever tasted. After gorging myself with traditional Christmas fare, swilling down the beer and drinking my enamel mug full of punch, feeling somewhat inebriated, I decided bed was the next best thing, so replenishing my mug with punch I warily and somewhat unsteadily made my way back to my truck. Undressing, getting into bed, I then drank the remainder of the punch and immediately fell asleep and slept 36 hours. My Tech Store truck was parked in front of a long low farmhouse. When we were told the tank crews were joining us it meant moving the truck to the rear of the house. That night we came under some shelling. One shell burst very near, wakening us up to the sound of debris all around us. It wasn't till daylight came we could inspect the damage, if any. The bonnet of my truck was bashed in, damaging the engine, the canvas; top was littered with stones and earth, but it was when I looked at the front of the farmhouse I realized how very lucky I had been. The exact spot where my truck had been parked was now a huge deep crater. But for the returning tank crews I would have been very much part of that crater.
During all the time we were "roughing it" I made it a rule that sometime during the day (or night) I would have a shave. It was to me a morale booster. Not so the Yanks and Canadians we met. They seemed to think that a few days' growth proved that they were in the thick of it and hadn't time to shave. Bathing wasn't quite as easy. It usually meant using a cut-in-half flimsy petrol can, warm water if available. With one foot at a time in the can one managed, with a precarious balancing act, to wash, all over. We did for a short while, have a much more luxurious system. The fitters had procured a very heavy 50 gallon oil drum, strongly reinforced with thick girth bands. By splitting the drum lengthways, removing the girth bands from one half and inverting them, they then became the supports for the other half. All one had to do then was fill the "bath" with water and light a fire underneath. As soon as the water was hot. enough the joy of having an open-air hot bath knew no bounds, except when some overenthusiastic pal threw masses of brushwood on the fire. It became something of an ordeal, with flames imprisoning one in a bath of water becoming increasingly hotter than was really necessary.
Rumours began to fly around that we were about to move. Even wilder rumours suggested we might be moving home. It was difficult to believe but when I had to hand the tanks over to another unit the unbelievable became a reality. From the cold wintry snow-covered district near Pescara we were driven south to the warm sunny Taranto. From there we were quickly aboard a liner bound for Blighty, sailing peacefully through the Mediterranean, arriving on a bleak February day at the port of our departure some eighteen months or so earlier. The joy of being home was somewhat tempered with sadness at the thought of so many of my comrades who hadn't been as lucky as me. Once more aboard a British train, we were whisked half the length of Scotland and the whole length of England, to Worthing, where we were immediately given disembarkation leave (three weeks) and again the long journey to Penrith, where I arrived. about 4am. The first bus to Patterdale not leaving till 8am I managed to hitch a ride with the postman, getting home about 7am with everyone in bed.
There I was, home again in my beloved Patterdale. Despite the fact that everywhere was covered with snow, the trees leafless, the sky grey and forbidding, it was home. With so much to tell, so much to be told, friends to meet again, to feast my eyes on the mountains, the lake, to be reunited with my family was all so very emotional. Three weeks passed so very quickly and again I found myself speeding south.
Getting to know that shortly I would have to travel with the tank crews to Kirkcudbright, I managed to have my privilege leave arranged after we had finished our exercises, so it was a comparatively short journey home. My leave happened to coincide with Easter and I was due to return on Easter Monday. A speculative telegram sent to my unit stressing the difficulties of public transport from Patterdale to Penrith at Easter met with unexpected success and I was given the following week extension. What was even more fortunate for me was that the very same week ALL leave was cancelled.
Time passed quickly and pleasantly at Worthing although we were not allowed on the beach, this having been mined. As well as Tech Storeman I was also in charge of the Squadron's petrol supply. Not that we did much manoeuvring, but lots of what was called "static running". This meant quite a lot of petrol was used. I believe that when in motion the tanks did about 3 gallons to the mile.
As the petrol was, stored in "flimsy" cans the very flimsiness of the cans resulted in many having, cracks and punctures allowing the petrol to evaporate, the empty cans being credited to my stock (or deleted). With no specific amount used in static running and with sorting out the punctured cans before they were empty I was able to keep the officers supplied with petrol for their "fun runs".
During our service in the Middle East we were given a free issue of 50 cigarettes a week. "50 V's" which nobody, not even the natives, would smoke. The makers were accused of using unmentionable ingredients. Just before we left Italy our quarter-master gave me a carton of a few thousand which we brought back with us. When word got around that I had this supply (cigarettes in England were half a crown for 20) I just couldn't believe the fact that lads, who had condemned most vigorously the Victory V's and had suggested that if we had given them to the enemy they might have lived up to their name, sneaked into the stores and offered to buy them for half price, saying they couldn't afford the English cigarettes. I let them have them, free.
As the weeks slipped by quickly and on the whole quite pleasantly we all knew that something BIG was fast approaching, so it was no surprise when we were driven to Poole Harbour and found ourselves ushered on to a landing craft. After a rather stormy but otherwise uneventful voyage I found myself, complete with 3-ton Tech Stores lorry, on French soil. D+3 I believe was the day. Once again a very peaceful landing, but once again as night approached we were subjected to heavy shell fire and bombing. As I tried to bury myself in the ground, underneath my lorry, there was our Sergeant ..??.., camera in hand, taking photos of the intense firework
display as the artillery put up a tremendous barrage, lighting up the sky with the colourful tracer bullets, and our Sergeant exclaiming "What a wonderful sight".
After many days of enduring bombing and shelling, some of which exploded far too near to be comfortable, the enemy began to slowly retreat and the chase began. I never will forget one day when it took us TEN hours to cover 8 miles with either side of the road a tangled mass of dead men, dead horses, burned out vehicles of every description. Tanks with charred
bodies of crewmen half in and half out of them, the carnage, the death, the miles of destruction made a very deep impression on me, but we had to go on. There was no letting up, each day trying to keep up with our tanks.
There were many very emotional scenes with hysterical civilians enjoying their freedom after years of subjection. We went into Holland, with the Guards tanks and our own supporting them, and endeavoured to relieve the paratroopers dropped unsuccessfully around Arnhem. Our tanks in the road to Nijmegen and our echelon at St Odenroode and I had (with others) the perilous job of running the gauntlet between the two to get essential spares to the tanks.
Life was anything but dull. Back in Belgium on New Year's Eve I found myself on the banks of the river Maas on guard duty with a pal. We were told to keep our eyes on the river as marauding bands of the enemy were in the habit of making sorties and causing as much damage to property and personnel as possible. During my two hours' stint my imagination ran riot, what, with the moonlight shining, on the water and tricks played by the ripples and flurries, I saw not just boatloads but actual armadas rowing across. Fortunately none of them landed but it was a very relieved guard when our relief took over.
We were constantly on the move, day or night. Time didn't matter. It was ever onward, the roads lined with happy cheering civilians.
We were getting near the Rhine. Before crossing, our tanks were fitted with propellers with an inflatable canvas shield. Even by standing on the top of the turret one could not see out, the driver having to use a periscope. After being thoroughly water-proofed the tanks became amphibians. It was most successful, the tanks driven by their tracks into the river until they became buoyant, when the power transferred to the propellers. They rather ungainly but almost invisibly made their way across the wide river, once again using their tracks to climb out on the other side, where they were very quickly deflated. A small explosive charge ripped of the water proofing, and in no time at all it became a fighting vehicle. I crossed in my three tonner shortly afterwards over a very hastily built rickety pontoon bridge.
I had never wanted to go into Germany. I imagined that behind every tree, every hedge, someone would be hiding and throwing hand grenades at us. I couldn't have been more wrong. Officially we were not allowed to fraternise with the Germans, but who could resist the friendliness and the innocence of the children.
I hadn't seen the devastation the German bombers had caused in England. In North Africa the battlefields were the endless deserts, in Sicily and Italy the orange and lemon groves. The open countryside was my experience, but in Germany I saw the full effect of what I had several times witnessed, the 1000 bomber raids, towns razed to the ground, not a building standing, the utter destruction of lives, and property. It really brought home to me the full impact of war, the whole horror of what the civilians had suffered, at home and abroad.
I have often wondered why I volunteered. Perhaps because I was always patriotic, perhaps because I loved my family and the special bit of England where I lived, perhaps to try and preserve the way of life we had been used to. I don't, think it was to seek revenge for my pal Tom although I was deeply sorrowed by his death. I just don't know. I wasn't a brave soldier. I was very much afraid when we were in action or under fire, although I tried not to show it. I never knew the result of all the shells I fired with the 75mm cannon or the bullets from the Browning machine gun. Whether it was good fortune or good luck I don't know but I never came face to face with the enemy when it could have been either you or I. Perhaps my training and discipline would have provided the answer. I just don't know.
Our joy knew no bounds when V.E. Day was announced. We were among the outskirts of Hamburg. The buildings that were not completely demolished were stark skeletons, burnt out silhouettes of buildings.
We moved to pleasanter surroundings, to a little village called Rantzan in Schleswig-Holstein. We were billeted in a large manor house surrounded by farm buildings. Storks, their huge nests built around the chimney, kept an incessant clapping and chattering. A nearby lake offered water sports. Now no gunfire disturbed the peace. My job was mainly stripping the tanks of all the useful equipment, all the miscellaneous tools, periscopes, machine guns, and a thousand and one articles, not forgetting the dry foam fire extinguishers. We had a small building as Tech Stores and one day several extinguishers had been emptied and the floor was deep with white powder. Having by now regained my sense of humour, I politely requested all who entered the building to put out their cigarettes as the powder on the floor was highly flammable. Without exception they all did. Only one young officer who had joined us after hostilities had ceased, duly nipped out his cigarette and then realized the stuff on the floor was to put fires out. I got quite a dressing down. Actually he hadn't much sense of humour.
The time passed very pleasantly, with of course, the knowledge that being demobbed was uppermost in our minds. Our main task was a 24 hour guard on a single pole road block. The majority of Germans who had occupied Norway and Denmark were concentrated in an area of Schleswig-Holstein. They were not allowed to pass into our sector, neither were we allowed into theirs. The guard consisted of 10 Germans and 10 British (ironically all armed). Each morning, the prisoners approached the road block which somehow had changed into an open air market. Rings, watches, jewellery, cameras were being bartered for cigarettes, cigarettes now being the only recognised currency. Needless to say many bargains were struck. The unofficial price for cigarettes was fixed at half a crown each, twelve and a half new pence for one cigarette. Coffee was also very much sought after and chocolate. The smiles of the children, the obvious joy of being given a bar of chocolate was to me most satisfying and rewarding.
I also had the children to thank for teaching me quite a smattering of German. They were so very patient, so unreserved. They smiled and laughed so merrily as I tried to imitate them, but they never gave up.
The 44th R.T.C. was disbanded and I with about thirty others were posted to the Northamptonshire Yeomanry, somewhere in the Ruhr to a pleasant country town. I was sent on a refresher course (as a joiner) to a railway pattern-making workshop in Bochum. It was very satisfying to handle the tools again and to absorb the delightful smell of wood. Back in the country town - I believe it was called Arnsburg - about six of us used to meet each evening in a local pub taken over by the Yeomanry. Beer was rationed to a certain amount each evening so as a precaution we all six queued together and when being served each ordered six pints. I wasn't tee-total but only drank on rare occasions, so six pints was rather over facing. However before being demobbed I was getting the hang of things.
At last demob day came along and it was with mixed feelings and unbelief that I was leaving for home and wouldn't have to come back. After 4½ years of having to obey orders, of travelling through so many countries without having any choice, the times when one simply lived from day to day, not daring to think about tomorrow. But also the good things, the hospitality of the people of Cape Town, the passage through the Red Sea, the wonders of Egypt, the Sphinx, the Pyramids, the Nile, the climbing of Mount Etna, the wonderful visit to the Holy Land, the swim in the Dead Sea, all evergreen memories.
What I have attempted to write is just a few of the many incidents which befell me during my war service. Many others, both amusing and frightening, have a habit of flooding my memory. The most important thing is that, where so very many pals and comrades gave the supreme sacrifice, I was lucky. I survived, so it is with a mixture of sorrow and thanksgiving, of sadness and gratefulness, the losses and the reunions.
Walter Dry was born in Wakefield, Yorkshire on the 20th May 1911, the son of George Arthur Dry. His family moved to Close Cottage in Patterdale soon afterwards. Walter joined the Choir at St Patrick's Church in 1919, a passion he maintained throughout his life. He married Elsie Bateson, a schoolteacher, on the 24th October 1936 at St Patrick's. After his war service, he and his wife moved to Coniston where he joined the Choir of St Andrew's Church and was still singing with them until he died at the age of 91 years in 2001.